In the forthcoming memoir, What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books, June 2019), Karen Stefano describes a violent confrontation and years altered by trauma. From her time patrolling campus at UC Berkeley, through her experiences with the criminal justice system and her search to discover what became of her attacker, Stefano writes fearlessly about the ways in which assault colors every corner of life—and how she’s come through it.
Dorothy Bendel: Can you tell us a little bit about your process for writing this book?
Karen Stefano: My process in general is to simply sit down and write. I force myself to keep my butt in the chair for X number of hours each morning, not worrying too much whether what I’m writing “works.” A huge fan of the Anne Lamott mantra favoring “shitty first drafts,” I simply try to get it down on the page. Then I go back and edit, edit, edit, generating literally hundreds of drafts—be it a chapter, an essay, or a short story. I suspect it’s extremely inefficient but it’s the only way I know how to write.
This book of course was different because it’s so personal, so triggering, and it had the research component I had never had to deal with before when writing fiction. I got through it by giving myself permission to jump around a lot. Can’t handle working on the assault scene today? No problem. Work on another scene. But write. Move forward somehow.
DB: How did you decide on the structural elements of the memoir?
KS: The structural elements were dictated by two factors: 1) time; and 2) the need to give the reader certain pieces of information early in the book. For that reason, the book starts with me in my days as a criminal defense lawyer while indicating nuances of my previous, more personal experience with the criminal justice system. Then we jump to “present day” 2014 in order to anchor the reader with additional information and context, then we go back to the events of 1984 and simply continue chronologically through the end of the story. It felt a little bit tricky to jump back and forth in time in the beginning of the book but I workshopped it heavily, received a lot of input from many early trusted readers, and finally wrestled it into a form that works on the page.
DB: Through your story, you explore how women must navigate the court system and the perceptions of others, in addition to navigating trauma. How does writing affect how you navigate the world?
KS: Being a writer requires a fair amount of self-isolation, and for me that can feel unbearably lonely at times. So working around that sense of loneliness requires navigation. There’s also the chronic challenge of feeling stuck inside one’s own head too much. As writers we have to make time to get out and live, to exist, to be in the world. But writing makes a person incredibly attentive to detail, attentive to darkness, attentive to suffering, and consequently being out in the world can often feel painful. It’s a difficult dance—at least for me.
DB: I was struck by the passage where you discuss the practicality of walking home, and how a woman simply making her way through the world is laden with projected interpretations implying that victims of assault bear some kind of responsibility—which you rightly reject. Where do you see this type of victim-blaming? How do you respond to it?
KS: We see victim blaming all the time. Just look at the Kavanaugh hearings. Just look at what the defense has in store for the victims in the upcoming Harvey Weinstein criminal trial. Sometimes I fear victim-blaming will always exist. But a more hopeful part of me believes we can combat it significantly by telling our stories, by speaking our truths, by getting people to listen, by getting those people to consider situations they’ve simply never had to encounter—and hopefully planting a sense of empathy somewhere inside them.
In the book, I felt I had to address why a woman who made her living wearing a police uniform and walking other women home to safety through crime-ridden streets would then choose to walk home alone, sans police uniform, late at night. I felt a reader would ask that question and I felt obligated to address it. There were projected interpretations by those around me as to why I made that choice: a feminist defiance; a sense of self-delusion that spending so much time in a police uniform might have given me. But yes, the ultimate answer was (and is) so simple, so practical: I did it because I needed to get home. I had no other choice but to walk home alone in darkness.
Later in the book I talk about how as a woman, the risk of sexual assault forms the rules I must follow, including how I should physically get myself from Point A to Point B. Because I am female, I do not have the same freedom as a man. I do not have the same freedom of safety. There are inherent difficulties inhabiting a female body and those difficulties are exacerbated when that body attempts to exert power of any kind. This is something our fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, and sons don’t seem to fully understand. And they won’t understand until we make them understand. And that understanding develops through dialogue—often difficult and uncomfortable dialogue.
DB: The book digs deep into the aftermath of violence and how it changes the way we interact with the world. What do you want readers to know about the lasting effects of assault?
KS: I want them to know they’re not alone, that there is no set timeline for healing, that sometimes you take one step forward and three steps back—and that is okay. There is no set recipe for recovering from trauma. That being said, from my own experience I believe there are some fundamental acts of self-care a person needs to force herself or himself to engage in: Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. Watch what story you’re telling yourself internally. Don’t say, “I’m going crazy.” Adjust that self talk to, “Something terrifying happened and I am processing this and it’s going to be uncomfortable and take some time…” Or something along those lines, something that creates an internal narrative that is more compassionate toward yourself. Make necessary life adjustments. Basically do the opposite of everything I did! If you have the resources, go to therapy. If your first therapist feels like a bad fit (as mine definitely was), find someone else, but go.
As I shared with more and more women what this book was about, I can’t even count how many said, “Yeah, something like that happened to me too.” And they would share their own story and that simple act of sharing would unburden them I believe. This was before the #MeToo movement began. Now this story is more relevant than ever. It’s important to speak out, to let others know they’re not alone, to let everyone know there are many ways to heal. As I’ve said before, sometimes we have to excavate the ugliest parts of our past in order to find peace, in order to finally see the beauty in today.
DB: What are you working on now?
I’m currently at work on my next book, a novel this time—the novel I back-burnered in 2013 to start What A Body Remembers. (My rationale at the time: I’m only writing about things that actually happened, so it’ll be effortless! This book will practically write itself! Memoirists have it so easy compared to fiction writers! I’ll be finished in six months!) Ha. Talk about self-delusion! In addition, I will continue sharing my stories in the form of essays and short fiction. By sharing our stories we render ourselves vulnerable, and I believe there’s a lot of personal power in that kind of vulnerability.
I also plan to continue my own personal journey of healing and self care and personal growth. As I share in What A Body Remembers, my therapist has told me I’m a “work in process.” To which I’ve replied, “Aren’t we all?”
Karen Stefano is the author of What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books June 2019). She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, California Lawyer, Psychology Today, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.
Find Karen on Twitter & Facebook.
Dorothy Bendel is the Managing Editor of Atticus Review. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, American Literary Review, The New York Times, and additional publications. Follow her @DorothyBendel.